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Travel Searches Plunged 64%, but These Comfort Destinations Remain the Most Popular During Lockdown

Yellowstone National Park
Stacey Sears
Stacey Sears

The force behind the hashtag #StaySafeStayHome has significantly affected the travel and hospitality industries since the onset of COVID-19. The reduction in air, train and bus travel has trickled down to other industries including hotels, house and apartment rentals, retail shops and restaurants. If people are sheltering-in-place, they have no need to book a rental unit at the beach or near a National Park. Businesses in destination areas suffer a double blow - locals are staying at home and tourists are staying away.

A recent survey by RENTCafe, a nationwide apartment search website and research blog, indicates that while travel searches have dropped, many would-be travelers would like to venture beyond their local neighborhoods. Here is a look at their research on U.S. travel destinations and the impact on the hospitality industry.

RENTcafe asked 15,000 visitors how COVID-19 impacted their travel plans and an optimistic 42% said they still want to travel. They turned to Google to see where Americans dream of escaping to at this time. Travel-related searches for over 200 popular U.S. vacation spots dropped by 64% in March and April combined, compared to the same period last year. Declines in interest ranged from 25% for the shores of Outer Banks, NC, to 78% for Brooklyn, NY. 

These are the Top U.S. Destinations Holding Strong During the Pandemic:

People Crave Small-Town Comfort and Nature Vacations 
North Carolina’s barrier islands, known as the Outer Banks, are the most popular — or at least saw the smallest decrease (-25%) in Google searches among all popular destinations analyzed. And, because nothing says big, open spaces like the mountains or Alaska, Yellowstone is a second favorite alongside Fairbanks, AK, both with 36% fewer searches compared to last spring. 
Meanwhile, crowded popular spots like Miami, Orlando, Las Vegas, or Chicago are replaced by the likes of Honolulu, HI, Anchorage, AK, Amarillo, TX, alongside a wide array of small towns and natural areas. Simply put, big, crowded cities are out, small-town comfort and big, open spaces are in.

No matter where people decide to travel, they will certainly need to eat. Many restaurants across the United States are still temporarily closed, leaving the local and tourist business to eateries with curbside pick-up or delivery. For the restaurants offering in-house dining, guests still need to feel comfortable with eating out amid fears of coronavirus spread.

Nothing Beats Small-Town Charm When You Need a Breather

Small-town America remains as alluring as ever. Whether it’s the desire to escape crowded cities or find quiet comfort, towns and smaller cities shine as the top post-pandemic getaway destinations that have maintained their popularity during these times.

Away from the hectic pace of big cities, places like Nantucket, MA, Moab, UT, Cheyenne, WI, or Taos, NM, are here to remind us that there’s just something about small towns that still makes us dream during isolation. Travelers to Taos who crave South American and Japanese fusion food at affordable prices will be happy to find Aji Restaurant. Whether you're looking for paella for two, grilled avacado salad or homemade pineapple pie, this eatery is located just outside downtown and offers takeout and delivery.

Despite the drop in travel-related searches for Fairbanks, the Northern Lights still call to us in this fascinating Alaskan city. The gateway to breathtaking Canyonlands, Arches, and Dead Horse Point, it’s easy to see why Moab, UT retains its online popularity, much like Cheyenne, WY. In fact, Wyoming’s state capital has a few aces up its sleeve, especially if you’re looking for family-friendly activities or getting in touch with your inner cowboy. 

Dead Horse Point State Park, Moab, UT. Photo credit - Stacey Sears

While searches for the Outer Banks might have dropped a bit compared to last year, the East Coast destination still earned the well-deserved title of the most popular post-pandemic beach destination during lockdown. Local favorite Pangea Tavern, located in Avon, NC, is known for its beer garden and signature dishes like North Cackalacky shrimp & grits and seafood platters featuring locally caught seafood. Although the eatery is currently open for dine-in and takeout, its summer business hinges on travelers feeling safe to go on vacation. Nantucket, MA — with so much to offer beyond its lighthouses — cemented its status as one of the best day trip destinations in the Northeast.

Hawaii is home to 5 out of 10 idyllic beaches just waiting for us once we go back to normal. The lockdown hasn’t diminished the appeal of Kauai, Maui, Hilo, and the fascinating Oahu. Likewise, The Florida Keys still engage our imagination despite them being understandably less looked-up compared to last spring.

Natural Parks are Evergreen in our Hearts While Homebound Web Visitors Eye Colorado
It’s only natural to crave a change of scenery at this point — the greener and further away from concrete walls, the better. While online searches for nature spots dropped 58% compared to last year, some green destinations just don’t go out of style.

It comes as no surprise that Yellowstone made the cut as an all-time favorite natural attraction. Not to be outdone, Aspen, CO still holds a special place in the hearts of winter sports and nature lovers. Aspen visitors will want to check out the French Alpine Bistro, a charming hideaway featuring fondue, sweet and savory crepes and classics like Boeuf Bourguignon. Although it offers curbside pick-up, visitors may want to dine-in to appreciate the chic decor. Two other Colorado wonders of the Rockies — Breckenridge and Vail ski resorts — also made the list. 

Amid Travel Cancelations, There are Those Who Still Dream of Sticking to Their Plans

Instead of exploring Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon this week with my parents, daughter and a group of high school friends, I am contributing to this RENTCafe pandemic travel piece. I, personally, am not ready to get on a plane where people who may not be socially distanced cannot be forced by the airlines to wear a mask despite being required to wear one to board the plane. Although I trust the cleanliness and sanitization of rental units and I was prepared to enjoy restaurant takeout in lieu of dining out, putting my family and friends in potential jeopardy seemed foolish and irresponsible. So, like most of the country, I wait and plan for a safer time to travel.

At the time the pandemic started, 22% had out-of-state vacation plans. Since then, 40% of them have canceled, yet there are still 42% who would like to travel, even if at a later date, while 18% haven’t decided what to do yet.

The survey responses also show that city trips and travel abroad fell among preferences — from first and second choices before the pandemic, to fourth and sixth spots after the pandemic, in favor of beach getaways and road trips. Cruises appear to be the last thing on vacationers' minds.


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